Volunteering may help you live longer

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- Millie Siegel was not looking for the Fountain of Youth when she first joined the Navy Nurse Corps nearly 80 years ago, but she may have found it nonetheless.

“I joined the Navy and worked in a hospital, and I liked it,” Siegel remembered. "When the boys came home, it was just something to help them, and that started me volunteering.”

And at age 99, she is still volunteering, now at Banner Boswell Medical Center.

Dr. Jeremy Payne, chief of the neurovascular center at Banner Good Sam, says Siegel's good spirits and good health could, in fact, be tied to her lifetime of volunteering.

“We know, for example, that people who volunteer are more likely to live longer, less likely, for example, to have depression, and even more likely to have better control of things like their pain," he said.

Payne says while there is no clear understanding of why that is, studies have found one common theme: “That an act of giving without expecting things in return seems to be what is important in having those health benefits. We don't, for example, see the same benefits in people who are employed to be givers.”

And he says for those going through difficult times in life, we see a similar effect in reverse.

“We know, for example, the opposite is true. We know after something really negative happens in your life, such as the loss of a loved one or spouse, for example, the mortality rate goes up," Payne said.

That is a situation Millie Ford found herself in more than 20 years ago.

“I got kind of lonesome after my husband died, and I just didn't know what to do,” Ford said.

A friend suggested she volunteer, also at Banner Boswell.

"I might as well. That's what I said,” Ford recalled, adding, “Sometimes you feel pretty useless, but this makes you feel useful, and that's what I like to be -- useful."

In fact, both Ford and Siegel say they make sure to be at the hospital for their shifts, knowing people are counting on them.

“If I have a day that I am supposed to be here, if you don't feel like it, you go anyway,” Siegel said. 

A sentiment echoed by Ford. “It is wonderful. I mean, it gives you a reason to get up in the morning because, after all, there is seven days in a week. You can spare one at least for volunteering.”

And while it does not matter where or how you volunteer, studies show it does matter how much.

“That if you can volunteer your time about 100 hours a year, you will see the benefits we talked about," Payne said. "Less helps, but 100 seems to be the sweet spot.”

And while Ford and Siegel can't say for sure whether it is the secret to a long life, they swear to the fact it is the secret to a happy one.

“There is just something about it that makes me feel good,” Siegel said.